bending notes bottoming out on a beer soaked floor

When I was fourteen I used to practice the solo from Smells Like Teen Spirit with the guitar hoisted over my left shoulder. Not looking at the frets was a total rock and roll move – one step removed from playing with your teeth or mastering the hammer ons for Eruption but come on – still very rock and roll.

I ran through the progression over and over again so it would seem effortless, but that’s about as far as my guitar playing abilities went. I was discouraged when I couldn’t make it through what I considered to be the most desirable solo of all time – the six minute mark of Stairway to Heaven – even when Damien, the instructor with curling fingernails tabbed it all out on lined paper. I sold my hefty Line 6 amp at a pawn shop for cash, and got really into digitized beats.

The EDM-blitz lasted quite awhile, but the gravitational pull of guitar is tugging me back. I’ve re-discovered classics (Crosby, Stills & Nash), geeked out on Mac DeMarco antics, and bit off pieces of jam bands, shoe gaze, and slacker rock – a slow, dystopian groove that’s both haunting and energizing (Japanese Breakfast).

I like the introspective nature of slacker rock. I like that you can lean back in your car and let the reverb wash over you. I like that I’m not listening to a long-haired rocker rifling through a million notes. It’s sleek and slow and kinda sad.

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Cigarettes in Biarritz

There were mesh sandals and tracksuits. Accents. Large, boisterous families. Roller bags designed in foreign countries. A frighteningly boring safety video as we took off from Dublin. An empty Paris airport, escalators pointing in every direction. Glamorous men and women bubbling – sucking cigarettes. And us — me and Kelsey watching and sucking cigarettes as well, doing our best to blend in, maybe even add something to the mix.

In Biarritz there was pumping surf and sun-bathing women. The very first night we stood by the ocean, clutching beer, listening to a DJ play disco with ink running down his arms. He swayed and flicked the mixer – someone in the crowd cooed.

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It felt good to be away from the entrance of a restaurant or the sliding doors of a bus. Ordering beer was easy, but other things – really basic shit – like asking for water or the bill, was still awkward.

But somehow we’d woken up in a central vein of French coolness, masked by cigarette smoke and a speedy, hip-spinning beat. The music swelled – getting faster – two women approached the mixing board with carefree intention.

I lit another cigarette, surely the last of the night, and passed it to Kelsey.  The smoke curled around us, rising to join other trails of smoke winding up towards the hill. With each puff I felt more at ease, just another glowing ember in the night.

Played an escapade just like you

All it took was some traffic outside of Monterey for me to start second-guessing the trip. One by one, radio stations were cutting out. I clung onto a hippie based out of San Luis Obispo playing The Grateful Dead for awhile, but then I swung around a cliffside and he cut out too.

I wasn’t lonely. Just a bit bored. I’d made this same mistake before, forgetting to bring CD’s or make an offline playlist – misremembering what hours of silence feel like. They kind of eat at you.

I’d just left Santa Cruz – which was insane. Perfect waves – thick ropes, round and symmetrical, sucked kelp right off the ocean floor, but with so many people in the water complaining about all the people in the water, I gunned it for Big Sur.

A park ranger eyed my Hurley t-shirt wearily and said she did have an open site. A guy standing nearby looked shocked – told me I was lucky as hell. He had a potbelly framed by a sweaty baseball tee and a beer in-hand. He seemed friendly with the rangers and mentioned several times he was having a party later if any of us wanted to stop by.

I set up camp and drove down the road to surf before dark. There’s a current at the south end of Sand Dollar that whips you out into the lineup. It saves a lot of paddling but it’s disorienting. Within seconds I was a hundred yards out at sea – umbrellas shrinking into tiny, colorful dots.

The water was shallow and clear as vodka, but the more I looked, the more I disliked seeing the grains of sand beneath me, the peaks and valleys, divots, and caves. I felt my heart pounding in my wetsuit.

When I got back to camp, I met up with George, the guy with the baseball tee who looked shocked about my campsite. He said he had some, “tweaky bud.”

I followed him to a clearing where a fire was roaring. I expected to see others gathered around but there only a few dusty tree stumps. He handed me a beer and we started talking about Big Sur. George was from a town inland and used to come here as a grom for birthday parties, surf trips, or just to get wild.

“Now we got fuckin’ trailers rolling around and kids spilling out,” he said. 

The fire spit and George smiled slyly, the gaps in his teeth shining in the moonlight. He swung a bottle of vodka clutched in his right hand towards the night sky.

“We’re in fucking Disney World, man! We’re in the fucking blue tea cup goin’ round and round.”

He paused, as if lamenting a lost brother.

“But as least we’re in the blue tea cup and not the fucking pink one.”

George’s musings got increasingly more scattered. He asked if the moon ever reminded me of a frog holding onto a tailgate, told a story about a time he’d caught a fish to impress a Hawaiian, stumbled through a shitty joke, spoke dearly about his love of kayaking, and made me promise I’d look up a waitress in Lake Tahoe – his girl.

After a few beers, he was reluctant to see me go. I told him I needed to go write, and thanked him for the good fire. Truthfully, I was starting to wonder. He told me that the guy who was supposed to meet him that night was also named Duncan.

I brought my buck-knife into my sleeping bag just in case George turned out to be a nut, realizing that the weed was probably making me anxious – tweaky. And of course, I woke up the next morning to gorgeous sunlight and the sounds of kids squealing and RV’s beeping, and realized that we were in a fucking theme park – at least there were still a few of us weird enough to visit alone.

Alberto Balsam

Pushing open the door of the Play It Again Sports in Portland, ME, I’m reminded of being a kid, eyeing the Vapor skates displayed on the rack, weighing a Synergy in my hands.

It’s a grey, New England morning and we’re on our way to visit my brother in Vermont, making a quick pit stop to sharpen our skates, and for me, an opportunity to record a Music That Moves Me Segment at Maine Public Radio.

We try on a pair of red and white gloves with an enlarged thumb to ward off vicious hacks, and then it’s time to head over, so I slip out, nervous to put words to something so wordless.

The studio is just two hundred yards from Play It Again Sports. There’s a good amount of snow on the roads so I clomp my boots out front, and suddenly I’m in the studio, in front of a microphone, watching the audio levels rise and fall.

“Want me to read from here?” I say, holding up a crumpled piece of paper.

The producer smiles, as if anticipating the question. “Why don’t you just talk to us.”

3 is my guess

“Three is my guess. Three or three-thirty,” said the man in a bright yellow polo tucked into khaki shorts. He drifted by our window, circled his car and stopped to lean against the guard rail. Two older women sat inside — one with a Tom Clancy novel spread across her lap, the other eating a bag of tortilla chips as she searched for a cooler of beer.

“Think they’ll be cold?” said the woman.

The man laughed. “Not a chance.”

Two miles up 1-80, a car was on fire. Behind us, were two more accidents. “That’s what happens when people slam the brakes on a two-lane highway,” said the man to no one in particular.

Beyond the guard rail was a drop off, a steep ravine lined with pine trees bending up to the clear, blue sky. I kicked off my shoes. The hot cement felt good pressed against the arches of my feet.

A car door slammed. A family of three jogged by — sweating. The woman in front of us let out a shrill yelp, tipping a beer can back, frothy liquid dribbling down her cheeks.

“Time to go!!” she shrieked.